The role of a Super League head coach is one of intense scrutiny from both the media and fans, and one of huge responsibility in carrying the hopes and dreams of a club.
During the 2023 season, three head coaches were dismissed from their role, whilst relegated Wakefield Trinity also replaced their head coach in the post-season following a change of ownership.
Castleford Tigers also had to replace their temporary head coach Danny Ward meaning that the 2023 season saw five coaching departures in the space of less than a year, highlighting the pressure and expectations laid upon Super League head coaches.
The 2024 campaign begins with two head coaches set to debut in Super League but a host of other men may be feeling the pressure from the weight of expectation too.
So who exactly are the head coaches that might be feeling the heat?
Sam Burgess – Warrington Wolves
One of the competition’s new head coaches makes the list because not only is this the first time Burgess has coached in Super League, but this is also his first head coaching job full stop.
There is no doubting the credentials of Burgess as a player. He is, without doubt, one of the best that England has ever produced and it’s been widely exclaimed down under that he is set to make a brilliant head coach, but the test is now finally here.
Taking over at a club like Warrington carries high expectations with the Wolves expected to be among the contending teams year in and year out, a pressure within itself.
After a lightning start in 2023 that saw Daryl Powell lead the Wire to eight wins from eight, the club saw their season derail with Powell dismissed amid an eight-game losing streak.
Despite that, the club managed to make the playoffs under interim head coach Gary Chambers but more will be expected from first-time head coach Burgess.
Warrington haven’t won a playoff game since 2018, the year the club made the Grand Final, and the fans will be demanding a return to those heights which means that there will be a huge amount of pressure on Burgess. The question is whether the first-time head coach can handle it.
Craig Lingard – Castleford Tigers
Also making an appearance on this list is the second newly-appointed head coach before the 2024 season, Castleford Tigers’ Craig Lingard, another without Super League experience.
The Tigers recruited Lingard during the 2023 season to serve as Andy Last’s assistant, Lingard balancing his role as Batley Bulldogs’ head coach with that of the Tigers’ number two.
A poor run of form that saw Castleford dragged into a relegation battle saw Last dismissed making him the second absentee from Wheldon Road after he had replaced Lee Radford earlier in the season.
It’s that tendency of the club to fire head coaches that assures Lingard’s position on this list, paired with the fact that Lingard hasn’t coached at this level before.
His tenure at Batley was mightily impressive with the Bulldogs making the Championship Playoff Final in 2022 as well as 2023’s 1895 Cup Final, but in Super League, he remains an unknown quantity.
Lingard also has to overcome the odds to an extent in that his side is not fancied to do well in 2024 per the bookmakers’ odds. Super League sponsor Betfred make the Tigers’ second favourites to finish at the foot of the table, thus highlighting the immense challenge the 46-year-old faces.
Rohan Smith – Leeds Rhinos
The Headingley job always carries pressure, such is the expectation of the Rhinos’ fans, and it’s been too long for many of them in their wait for a ninth Super League title.
Leeds’ last victory at Old Trafford came in 2017, whilst they lifted the Challenge Cup in 2020 but should the club not lift silverware in 2024 then it would mark their longest drought post 2004 when the club first landed the Super League crown.
As such there are lofty expectations for Rohan Smith who heads into his second full season with the club after taking over midway through the 2022 campaign.
That 2022 season saw Smith transform Leeds’ hopes and guide them to Old Trafford but an eighth-placed finish in 2023 has dampened spirits and cranked up the pressure another notch.
What also makes the taste of success in 2024 so vital for Smith’s tenure at Headingley is the major spend that the club have afforded him, the Rhinos completely rebuilding their spine and at huge expense.
NRL recruits Lachie Miller and Matt Frawley have been brought in to play at full-back and in the halves respectively. Meanwhile, Salford Red Devils duo Brodie Croft and Andy Ackers will complete the spine, former Man of Steel Croft partnering Frawley in the halves and England international Ackers occupying the hooker position.
The deal to land Croft and Ackers came at a cost believed to be £300,000, hence you could phrase it that there are 300,000 reasons that Rohan Smith is under the microscope for the 2024 season.
Ian Watson – Huddersfield Giants
Huddersfield Giants had a hugely disappointing 2023 Super League season with the club failing to challenge the playoff picture, placing in a lowly ninth after reaching the lofty heights of third the previous year.
It marked a major step back for the side who seemingly failed to gel with the numerous off-season signings not quite replicating the form showed at their prior clubs.
Among those signings was Hull FC maverick Jake Connor but injuries disrupted his pre-season and the 29-year-old failed to replicate his 33 assists from the season prior.
Connor had even suggested himself in the pre-season that the Giants had compiled the strongest squad in Super League, the comments themselves generating plenty of press and no doubt adding to the pressure on Ian Watson.
It would seem that Watson has plenty in the bank in terms of faith and trust with club ownership, the impressive 2022 season seeing the club also make the Challenge Cup Final. However, the opinion of fans does carry weight and should the Giants get off to a slow start then questions could be asked.
Paul Wellens – St Helens
Perhaps a shock name to round off the list but Wellens himself would likely admit that his first season as head coach could have gone better, that being a testament to both his and the club’s mightily high standards.
The Red Vee were aiming to land their fifth Grand Final in a row and send off club legends James Roby and Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook in style but their dream fell short in Perpignan due to a moment of Sam Tomkins magic.
That saw Saints fall at the semi-final stage, just as they did in the Challenge Cup in a heated contest with Leigh Leopards that unfortunately saw Wellens’ team pick up major injuries to both Alex Walmsley and Agnatius Paasi.
Whilst the injuries were devasting the game seemed to galvanise the club and send them on a march into the playoffs, and if that form carries over into 2024 then Paul Wellens and his side will have no issue.
If however, they start the Super League season as they did in 2023 with a record of five wins and five losses after ten games, then questions could be asked of the club legend.
After all St Helens have been spoiled of late and that expectation doesn’t just disappear, particularly in a rugby league haven such as St Helens. Heavy is the head that wears the crown in that subsection of Merseyside.